No Diving, Smykacka, 2016
Slovakian photographer Maria Svarbova knew from an early age that she was going to be an artist. The only question was which medium would she use as a means of self-expression?
Within less than a decade of “discovering” photography as her chosen medium in 2010, she has garnered the prestigious Hasselblad Master award, had her images grace the pages of magazines around the globe, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and published her first book, “Swimming Pool,” with a touring exhibition.
The secrets to her success include an incredible sense of design and a singular vision. It’s why she’s sought after by collectors who pay attention to her entire body of work, rather than single images, and photo editors and art directors who do their hiring based on her clearly defined vision and aesthetic.
Svarbova’s distinctive environmental portraits are often created in socialist-era architectural environments, while her models are portrayed with an otherworldly, postmodern detachment, molded like clay into a form that helps drive the narrative.
There’s a suspended-in-time silence in her work that invites contemplation.
Digital Photo Pro: How has growing up in Eastern Europe influenced your aesthetic?
Maria Svarbova: My photos are of an imaginary world that was very much inspired by historic artifacts and environments from the former communist Czechoslovakia. This is a consistent style in all my projects. But the spaces I work in have no meaning without humans. They become empty, something is missing.
I [also feel it’s true to say] that humans have no meaning without the space around them…People are the main source of inspiration for me. They fascinate me. This dates back to the beginning of my career. So you could say that my main focus is to harmonize humans and space.
What is it about the architecture of the Soviet era that inspires you?
I discovered a beauty in architecture. I love symmetry and geometry so much—elements that you often find in these massive structures. In my compositions, symmetry is also one of the main factors that distinguishes my artwork. It’s a key element of my style. I also try to harmonize a human and a place with each other. These two elements become as one.
Where and what did you study in school? How did photography end up as your means of expression?
I studied the conservation of paintings and historical wood sculpture in the Department of Restoration in high school and archeology at the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia. I wanted to be a painter, but since 2010, I have been dedicated to photography as my main tool of artistic expression.
My sister gave me my first professional camera, and I was thrilled how I could express myself through it. And although it’s been less than a decade that I have focused on photography, I’ve been told by some professional photographers that I learn very quickly.
In 2014, I found a defunct swimming pool in Zlaté Moravce, where I grew up. Its architecture inspired me to create my first major series and book, “Swimming Pool.” For the book, I visited and photographed 10 pools in 10 different cities.
What’s the idea behind your new book, “Futuro Retro”?
At this moment, it’s a secret. The book is still in progress, but I give a hint of it in my last book, “Swimming Pool.” It’s with the same publisher I’ve collaborated [with on my first book], New Heroes & Pioneers, which is based in Sweden. They create beautiful books on fascinating subjects.
“Swimming Pool” definitely fits into that category. It’s interesting how your models are often posed as if they’re frozen in time. How do you achieve that look?
We call this style futuro retro, which is also the name of my upcoming book. To achieve this look, we have the models act like mannequins and become mechanical. I also want to stop all human emotions.
This feeling is empowered not only by my direction but by the costumes, the scene and the makeup. I also work with a big production team, especially with stage and costume designers.
We use socialistic designs because they look minimalistic and futuristic at the same time.
Are these people in your photographs professional models? How are you finding your subjects?
I use both professional models as well as my friends and family in my projects…whoever has the right look for a particular scenario.
I’ve written about how I direct people in this “Plastic World” into positions and mental states so that they look like emotionless mannequins where they have blank stares, freeze in stiff poses and are seemingly void of emotion.
The series is designed to challenge the viewer to question the ingrained roles people play in society. The overall narrative of the series addresses the idea that in the absence of emotion, there’s an inability to change one’s role in life. In essence, it becomes predetermined.
What photo and lighting equipment are you working with to create this surreal world?
I’ve used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and IV, and, since 2018, I have been taking pictures with Hasselblad, the X1D-50C and the H6D-100c. I’m now a Hasselblad Ambassador.
These days, my postproduction runs in Photoshop or Phocus, which is a RAW-file image-processing-and-editing software app from Hasselblad.
But the photo has to look great in the camera first. I don’t rely on postproduction. Usually, the preproduction process takes a lot of time before the photo shoot [begins].
I’m a photographer who uses natural daylight. I think it’s the best softbox ever! I prefer this light source because it’s very natural and believable. My pictures and story have to be natural because I’m creating a fictitious documentary.
Are you purposely trying to shoot just on overcast, cloudy days to get the sky to act as a gigantic softbox?
I like all kinds of weather, not only cloudy days. I love sunny days as well. You just have to know when and how to apply its varying qualities. Open shade, in other words, indirect sunlight, is an excellent light source.
In addition to architecture, who and what are your artistic influences?
I discovered the artistic duo Cooper & Gorfer. Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer focus their collaborations on the female aspects of cultural identity. It’s been written that their “photo-based collages are anchored in an anthropological research of people, place and the genius loci.” The “genius loci” means the atmosphere or spirit of the place, something that’s vital to the work I do as well.
For more on Maria Svarbova and her photography, check out her website, mariasvarbova.com. (Special thanks to Art-Angle in Taipei for its assistance in coordinating this interview.)